Winter break is upon us. The Massachusetts hockey team has played 16 games so far this season and after Christmas will play the remaining 17 before heading to the Hockey East playoffs. The good news is the team has already clinched a post-season spot. The bad news is the season so far has been bad. Real bad. Historically bad. I know I keep using the historically bad description recently in posts, but that’s really all that keeps popping up in my thoughts. The team has been more than bad. It’s been more than really bad. Historically bad is really the most fitting term I can find, though I would bet a lot of UMass fans would also say the season has also been embarrassingly bad.
Before we get into just how and why they’ve been bad, let’s back up a few months and understand expectations heading into this season. I don’t think anyone expected this to be a dominant team in Hockey East. I think fans were understanding that the team lost a lot of offense when guys like Mike Pereira and Conor Sheary graduated. People knew that a 10 player freshman class would likely mean some growing pains. Most Mullins faithful were even understanding to lower expectations when the jewel of the recruiting class, NHL draft pick Brandon Montour, ended up having to spend another semester in juniors to straight out NCAA clearinghouse issues. Followers around the program just wanted to see progress. Everyone had heard a lot about what would happen when John Micheletto had a roster full of his players that would allow him to play the up tempo system he’s wanted and that players recruited by Toot Cahoon, while talented, were not really allowing him to do so. After winning just 12 and 8 games in his first couple seasons I think fans would’ve been happy to see UMass improve to 15 wins this season and at least get close to playing .500 hockey.
Instead the team has gone just 4-12-0 in the first half of the season, making any thoughts of .500 play a pipe dream. Only one of those wins has come in conference and the team finds itself in last place in Hockey East, very unlikely to finish higher than 10th at best. While the record itself is very concerning, the fact is the team’s play has been downright appalling at times. There are statistical thresholds that this program has not seen in decades that they are now surpassing. Obviously the main issue has been the inability to keep opponents from scoring. UMass is giving up an astounding 4.69 goals per game, by far the worst defense in the country. Next worse is Colorado College at 4.13 GPG and the closest among Hockey East teams is Maine at 3.72, nearly a full goal better than the Minutemen. Last year the worst defensive team in the country was UAH with 4.37. The 4.69 goals allowed per game is even worse than UMass’ very first year in Division I and Hockey East. That team, which went 5-19-3 ONLY gave up 4.61 goals per game. That team, thought they worked extremely hard, had a fraction of talent of this UMass team.
I could go on and on about all these mind-boggling statistics showing just how bad this team has been, but in the end it really just comes down tot 4.69 goals allowed per game. This team is horrendous on defense. They’ve played decent defensively at times, the series against Quinnipiac being probably the best example. And they’ll play OK during stretches in games. But all it takes it a couple odd man rushes, some laziness and distraction by the UMass players, and suddenly the opposing team has put five goals on the board in the matter of minutes. I’ve never seen a team so bad at playing defense. And, it’s been a total team effort. Defensemen and forwards alike have been guilty of defensive breakdowns that lead to way too many quality chances by opponents. Amazing, given the numbers, I’ve found it hard to put most of the blame on the goaltending of Henry Dill and Steve Mastalerz during this first half. Opposing teams are getting such great looks at the net, allowed to fire away from the slot or closer, that it’s tough to really gauge what saves the goaltenders should be making if any.
Ultimately the defensive problems come from Mick’s up tempo, offense first “system”. Well, to be perfectly frank, I think the system sucks and is probably not viable in Hockey East. In the prior two years, when the roster was still dominated by players from the last regime, the defense was not great but ok, giving up 3.00 and 3.12 goals per game. This season that number ballooned to astronomical portions. It has to change. Major adjustments have to be made to the team’s strategy for the second half of the season. Early on when the team struggled I think it made sense to preach patience given the large number of freshman that were trying to get acclimated. That’s not the case anymore. It has been 16 games and the team looked just as inept defensively Tuesday in the 8-3 loss to Northeastern as they did during the 8-1 loss to Boston University in the season opener. Whatever Micheletto thinks he’s doing isn’t working defensively. It has to change. The goaltenders at times have shown that they are capable Hockey East goaltenders when given a chance. But they cannot be successful against an insane number of odd man rushes or opposing players allowed to tee off two feet away from the slot. Mick needs to change his ways, they’re not working. They’re not producing results and are definitely losing fans and perhaps resulting in him losing some of his team.
Offensively, the team has been alright. In all the season previews in September and October fans and the media wondered how they’d ever replace all that goal scoring that graduated last year. Well, they’ve been just fine finding the back of the net. So far this season they’re scoring 2.69 goals per game, 6th best among Hockey East teams. That’s a big step up from last year when they scored 2.24 goals per game, second worst among Hockey East teams. Yes, guys like Pereira, Sheary, and Branden Gracel were all talented players. But, the team has made up for it with a legitimate Hockey East star in Frank Vatrano, who has scored 9 goals in the team’s last 10 games. The duo of Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi are both building off of excellent freshman seasons last year and are by far the most consistent producers on the team. Freshman Dennis Kravchenko and Patrick Lee have both made solid contributions on offsense so far, though Kravchenko has cooled off considerably in recent weeks and will be needed to get back on track in the second half. Seniors Troy Power and Zack LaRue have come up with key points during the season as well. This team has a lot of promise offensively and the goal scoring is something that should only get better with the addition of Montour. But it’s all for naught if they continue to give up five goals a game.
It’s pretty evident from the comments on this blog, message boards, social media, not to mention actual Mullins attendance that the fans are quickly running out of patience with Micheletto. Again, I don’t think expectations were through the roof this year, but it’s quite clear that the fans expect for the program to avoid becoming a laughing stock in the college hockey world. But unfortunately that’s just what they’ve become through the first half of this season. Micheletto hasn’t done himself any favors by not engaging more with the fans and surrounding community. Maybe if he was more communicative with his vision for UMass hockey from the get go fans would be more patient, although I’m not sure the most extroverted coach could’ve prepared the fans for what has transpired this year. Nonetheless, Mick has instead been standoffish and quietly gone about his work without prioritizing getting in front of the UMass fans (the last Meet and Greet even was December 2012). And I think this has really hurt him. Without a personal connection to the coach fans only know Mick as the guy behind the bench leading the team to 8-3 losses. Honestly, it’s probably too late for any kind of outreach effort from him so in the end it’s only going to be wins and losses that matter to the majority of fans.
I’ve said all along that Micheletto probably deserves four years to get this program winning, especially since he walked into a challenging situation based on the lateness of his hiring and the unbalanced recruiting classes ahead of him. But I did not in my wildest dreams expect a single Hockey East win through the first half of the season and 75 goals allowed in 16 games. Attendance is plummeting to all time lows, Pond Club events are sparsely attended, and general interest in the program is dwindling. The “wait ‘til next year” mantra was fair in the first couple seasons, but that’s over. It’s year 3, it’s time to start winning. It’s all in Mick’s hands. His players, his staff, his responsibility. Maybe the hole is too deep and there’s not much to play for this season, but at the very least he has to do what’s necessary to get this program winning and at least show some evidence that he’s capable of getting it back on track. Maybe wholesale success doesn’t happen until next year, but first he needs to show the program can at least be respectable and can be a point of pride for the university.
UMass hockey players have a history of getting involved in community related activities after they leave Amherst. Recent examples include Peter Trovato’s Massachusetts Solidiers Legacy Fund and Scott Crowder creating the Pond Hockey Classic. Anthony Raiola who graduated last year is the latest former Minutemen to take on civic minded activities as part BOKS:
Anthony Raiola ‘14 has made the transition from the hockey rink to the corporate world joining BOKS, Build Our Kids’ Success, an initiative of the Reebok Foundation. A Former collegiate athlete who experienced daily fitness in his formative years growing up in Minnesota and one who continues to work out daily knowing the importance of physical activity, Raiola is concerned that kids across the globe are not moving as much as prior generations. Inspired by BOKS Founder, Kathleen Tullie, Raiola sensed an opportunity to bring awareness and fundraising to the cause of BOKS and connected BOKS, Reebok Hockey and the NHL to collaborate on a special promotion in association with the marquee 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic ®
I heard a lot of great things about Raiola in terms of his character when he was part of the UMass team so it’s not a big surprise to see him involved in such a worthy cause right out of the gates after leaving school.